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5.0 out of 5 stars geography as a factor in the emergence of civilization, 11 Mar. 2012
This review is from: Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (Paperback)
Because I had heard that this book was an extended attempt to reduce the whole of human civilization to geography, I was wary of it being a long and dreary exercise in simple determinism. I could not have been more wrong! Not only is this book an absolutely first rate intellectual adventure, but it is a nuanced interpretation that deserves every effort. Even better, it is a complete delight as a reading experience, full of fascinating, unexpected ideas and facts on every single page, and superlatively written.

As I interpreted it, the crux of his ideas are: 1) land must be fertile, large enough for widespread farming, and the climate the right temperature; 2) geographical boundaries - or their lack - must allow dissemination of ideas across similar landscapes via trade (i.e. horizontally, not vertically cutting across latitudes); 3) a wide variety of animals, in particular domesticable large mammals (for food and muscle labor), must be available to complement farming culture. Eur-Asia had the cow, horse, and pig, a unique endowment that other regions lacked. When all of these pre-conditions are met, a people can convert from hunter-gather bands to farming communities in massive numbers. Once they do so, civilization can arise as they 4) begin to accumulate surplus foodstuffs, expanding population growth, 5) freeing workers from hunting and thus becoming sedentary, eventually 6) to develop specialized labor and hierarchies (in tribes, clans and eventually nations), enabling them to create 7) sophisticated administrative apparatuses (to govern populations where everyone cannot know each other as they do in bands and tribes), writing to preserve knowledge, and more complex technologies. Finally, beyond superior technology and organization, 8) the larger groupings in cities and nations confer disease immunities on diverse populations, which devastate simpler, more isolated cultures.

That is it in a nutshell for the ideas. That being said, Diamond is by no means arguing any superiority of various civilizations, only that their establishment and growth are scientifically predictable when the three preconditions are met. As such, it is neither genetic endowment nor invention that led to the dominance of the Eurasian peoples, but geographical luck. I know it sounds too pat and deterministic to state it this way, but the true rewards of the book are a breathtaking tour of human pre-history, to the beginnings of civilization as seen through what people ate, how they obtained their food, and what barriers to further productivity they faced.

The canvas he paints includes every major continent and civilization, from Eur-Asia to Africa, the Americas and Australia, with a concluding chapter on Japan. Though I have been on a binge of broad-brush histories of human development and civilization, I can say without hesitation that this one is the most fascinating and fun, in addition to being the deepest inquiry into the forces that shaped human destiny. I knew many of the details and concepts, but this book pulled everything together with subtlety and clear logic. It is truly a masterpiece that I will read more than once.

I do have some criticisms of the book. First, he appears to regard the destructive collision between hunter-gatherer peoples as inevitable and unstoppable, particularly with the advent of industrial technologies. I am not at all sure that any culture will necessarily annihilate another, particularly when we are slowly developing greater appreciation and respect of other ways of being. Now, we can choose whether or not it will occur. Second, towards the end, he introduces many ideas kind of helter skelter that are far less well thought through than in the first 2/3 of the book, to the point that they lack coherence. Third, he attempts to extend the logic of his approach too far, in particular with prescriptions - e.g. that it is applicable to modern businesses, with the laughable kinds of cross-over arguments that are made in business schools from scientific research in other areas - that I found naive and superficial.

Warmly recommended.
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